It’s interesting that when people learn I am an artist, they will often say - “Oh, I could never do that. I’m not creative at all.” But actually (stay with me here), let’s challenge that for just a moment.
I get that art can seem intimidating, but creativity doesn’t have to be. If you think about it, we are all creative in some way, whether we are making a meal to feed our families or humming a song while driving. Businesses are constantly creating value that meet needs and fuel our economy. Life requires us to engage in the act of creating - we are creative all the time every day.
We are all creative in some way, even when making a meal to feed our families
How does a box of dry pasta, a package of raw meat, an onion, and a can of tomato sauce become a spaghetti dinner? You create it! You may hear your boss tell your team to “Get creative!” as a way to motivate people to get serious about solving problems in different ways.
Most of us even take pride in being resourceful day-to-day, but we somehow don’t equate resourcefulness with creativity. Are you with me so far? We are redefining creativity beyond the realm of the right brain and artistic endeavors, to include legitimate left-brain creativity like coming up with fresh ideas for meeting life challenges. And increasingly, we are seeing the integration of science and art as innovative design and technology disrupt existing paradigms.
I like to think of the link between creativity and art, as being the difference between work and play. Because when we are kids, there is no difference. But as we get older, we are told that we need to be more serious, and “get to work.”
And the thing is that the best kind of job is where you are having fun doing your work, so it’s kind of like getting paid to play. Not all of us are lucky enough to be paid for doing what we love, so that’s where we get to call what we do for fun our hobbies or side-hustles. Art is one way we play, sports are another way. But really, you could love knitting or gardening, or messing around with boats. See where I’m going with this?
The reason it’s helpful for us to rethink creativity is because it’s good for your brain. Turns out that our brains perform optimally when we are in what’s called a flow state. When we are in flow, our brains shift to a characteristic wave pattern that allows for focus and control; we are often so immersed that we lose track of time. The activity is intrinsically rewarding regardless of outcome, and most importantly, we are free from reflective self-consciousness (a.k.a. the inner critic).
Research has shown that certain conditions are prerequisite for flow, i.e. balance between challenge and skill, and having clear goals and feedback. Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi originally studied chess players and rock-climbers, but he went on to study many others who did activities for pleasure, even when they were not rewarded with money or fame.
Health benefits of flow
The flow experience has been shown to improve emotional regulation, and to increase fulfillment and happiness. It also leads to better intrinsic motivation, as well as greater creativity, engagement and performance, thus setting up a positive feedback loop or virtuous cycle.
Experiencing flow promotes release of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, and engaging in challenging different parts of your brain inherently builds neuroplasticity. Flow has even been found to be protective against depression and burnout.
So you may be wondering how you can achieve a flow state. Chances are that you already have experienced it. It’s a matter of noticing when it’s happening, and then deliberately going about replicating the experience.
Making it happen
What comes to mind as you are reading about the flow experience? Usually it’s an activity that comes so easily to you that it’s like breathing or walking. Maybe it’s singing or swimming, or you have a knack for fixing things. You are probably used to taking it for granted or dismissing your gift because it comes effortlessly. Perhaps you only notice when others express admiration or even envy for your gift.
In a world that’s too full of stress and urgency day-to-day, you owe it to yourself to be intentional in practicing flow. Even when it’s something you enjoy, it can be challenging to set aside the time to do that activity. I noticed that even though I had set the intention to do a little art every day, it took me years to actually build the habit.
You owe it to yourself to be intentional in practicing flow
So many objections would come to mind, like “How could I be so selfish to take time for myself?” and “This is such a waste of time.” But I’ve come to see through self-coaching that these are just words that my personal gremlin and inner critic Milly likes to say to try and protect me. She has been doing it for decades - all the way back to when I was a kid, and I’d get in trouble with my parents for drawing or playing.
Now I get to say thanks to Milly for trying to protect me, and to gently remind her that I’m a grown up now. That I’m choosing to take this time to play because it’s good for my brain and this is how to #momyourbrain. I’ve learned that allowing that time for creativity builds resilience and a deep trust in the voice of my own wise self.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in detail the science behind the flow state, which is defined as a holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement.